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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Chief Cargo Cult Scientific Officer, CCCSO

I went down to San Diego to use the latest technology for counting cells. It was a flourescent microscope, some fancy robotics and software. It didn't work. The limitations were not the machine but rather the techniques used to stain cells. We went into a large lab space. It was empty. Like so many other biotech companies I had visited, this was a dying enterprise. There were a few men in a board room discussing business. In the empty lab there were three of us. We were about to try and use the machine that was the only product of this company. It didn't work.

About two years later one of the men that was in the board room was now the Chief Scientific Officer of the company I was working for. When your job is to run an RNAi project I suppose you are as much of an expert as anybody. The CSO was previously working on a flourescent microscope. Now he was an RNAi scientist. Since these guys never enter the laboratory, this made sense. RNAi is easy to explain. It's unproven and thus there will be little flack from those who can throw other failures in you face. But no amount of experience can make the RNAi ship sail. The CSO's job was to convince investors and other cubicle scientists that we had a product in the RNAi world.

If you look at the biotechnology companies trying to make RNAi products, my old company is still high on the list. Our old CFO was fired and went to a company called SIRNA, as in short interfering RNA. I guess he was an RNAi financial expert. Make sense? My old company is different than a lot of other companies. They are one of the fastest growing companies in the area. While other companies were cancelling their RNAi projects, we were hiring. Our new CSO was reporting amazing results from an RNAi experiment that involved 3 mice. An experiment with an N of 3 caused quite a bit of exitement among the biotech cargo cult scientists and our CSO was turning heads. Not bad for a man who left a sinking ship that specialized in counting cells with a microscope/robot/computer.

This week there will be an announcement from my old company company. The CSO is "retiring". That's corporate talk for being fired. Because he was an older gentleman they will try and use the angle that he is retiring. He's been fired. RNAi doesn't work, CSO doesn't work. Working in these Cargo Cults has never been easy.

The departure of the CSO should send chills down the spines of the investors. If they knew enough they would have to wonder about the stability of the research. Why would the leader leave? What does the laboratory staff do while a new CSO is sought? A man who made over 300 thousand dollars a year shoud be sorely missed. But this is RNAi. Whether or not you've got no one or Watson and Crick in that position, the drug will not work. Might as well retire and enjoy your life.

What did this CSO do in the course of his life. He has numerous publications. None of them was powerful enough to provide a steady income. The CSO had to move from state to state. For awhile he worked in San Diego and lived in Northern California. He'd fly home for the weekends. But the pay was high. Higher, at least, than the normal pay for someone who actually provides a product or service. It is pay to sell a companies image of a product or service. It's pay to convince everyone that the planes are on their way. As a high paid PhD scientist he knew what others could not. But now he is gone. The CEO and the board no longer care. They told him what to think and he did a bad job at convincing them that they were correct. Such is the game. Another couple of years, another job. How long can these cults last?

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